Over the last three years, I’ve had the opportunity to interview more than 500 software engineers and the pleasure of hiring over 50 of them. During that time, I’ve witnessed countless situations where candidates struggled with a few key elements that could have easily been improved with better preparation. As the VP of Engineering at a hyper-growth startup, I’ve been able to build an exceptional team while gaining some incredibly valuable insights into the world of hiring. I wanted to share some of these insights and tips with the hope that it will help at least one person in future interviews.
I provide the following recommendations mainly with the interviewee in mind, but they will also be valuable to those conducting the interview. As interviewers, we represent the company, and we should always be growing, learning, and improving our craft to facilitate exceptional interviews. Regardless of whether the interviewee is ultimately successful in the process, every individual with whom we speak has invested time and therefore deserves a world-class candidate experience at every stage of their interviewing journey.
1. Building rapport with the interviewer
COVID-19 has made virtual interviewing the new norm. In light of this, building a rapport with the individual on the other side of the video call has become increasingly difficult. To overcome this challenge, we need to find new and effective ways to build relationships.
During interviews, each party assesses whether they want to work with the other. From my experience, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to practice your interviewing skills and challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone in order to build a relationship with the interviewer during the call.
How can we accomplish this? Here are a few tips that may help:
- Make time during the first few minutes of the conversation for casual discussion before diving into the formal interview. While this may only be a three-minute segment of the interview, I consider this one of the fundamental elements of relationship-building.
- Be positive about your past work experience, your interviewing experience, and the progress you’ve had so far.
- Be on-time, polite, and courteous.
- Actively listen to the other person.
- Be respectful, and don’t be afraid to challenge a point or ask questions if something is unclear, but don’t get into an argument even if you disagree with what was said.
- Be prepared for the interview by making sure you check your internet and video conferencing software. Poor sound and video quality will likely create a suboptimal experience.
When it’s time to talk about yourself and share your experience, be mindful of how you tell your story.
Nerves and excitement are a natural part of interviewing. What’s important is realizing that while nerves can be helpful, they can also impact how we communicate. When going over your talking points during the interview, make an effort to be as succinct and concise as possible. A typical response to feeling nervous is often to speak quickly and provide overly-detailed, but not always the most relevant information. Before responding or speaking, pause briefly, take a breath, and approach your answer calmly and clearly. I’ve witnessed countless candidates who have started an interview by immediately providing in-depth details on previous projects for 15 minutes without even allowing me to introduce myself or the role for which they’re being interviewed.
This often amounts to a less-than-desired result for three main reasons:
- The interviewer doesn’t end up getting the critical information needed to make an objective decision about whether this individual can be successful in the role.
- The most impactful and meaningful parts of your story get lost in superfluous details. Interviews are brief opportunities to tell your story; be cognizant of time and how to use it to your advantage.
- The inability to be succinct and concise is a sign that you may need to further develop your professional communication skills. Prepare your talking points in advance and practice your responses and storytelling out loud.
To improve, I suggest adding more structure to your answers. I have found success using the STAR method, which is an easy and common technique to organize thoughts and answers. STAR stands for:
- Situation - Describe the background
- Task - Describe what you needed to do
- Action - Describe what you did
- Result - Describe the outcome of what you did
3. Show curiosity
During the interview, you will have time to ask questions. This is not only an opportunity for you to get more information about the company or role, but it can also increase your chances of being remembered and stand out compared to other candidates. In the lifetime of any given role, we may see over 800 applicants and an additional 200-plus sourced and referred candidates. Take time to prepare in advance and ask meaningful, relevant questions to the interviewer.
I split candidates into three main groups when it comes to asking questions:
- In the first group are the candidates who ask very few questions. This shows little interest in the company and makes it evident there was minimal preparation and research done in advance of the interview.
- In the second group are the candidates who ask simple, trivial questions that are generic or seemingly Googled before the call. Asking some questions, even generic ones, is better in most cases; however, if there are many questions like this, it can lead to a negative impression and may not help ensure that the candidate stands out amongst the competition.
- In the third group are the candidates who ask meaningful, well-researched, company-specific questions. Candidates in this group show curiosity, genuine interest, and that they spent time researching the company in preparation for the call. Candidates in this group will likely stand-out and be remembered.
I hope these insights can provide value to anyone looking to improve their interviewing skills and increase the likelihood of landing their dream job. During your next interview or coffee-chat, remember to build a relationship, tell your story effectively, and show your curiosity and interest in the role by asking meaningful questions.
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